3 Mar 2011

"Natural" is not necessarily good (2)

You my remember a recent rant I had here about how "natural" wines is a silly term, and a misleading one as well. Here is the link:

In case you haven't the time to read it, the gist of the article is that since all things in nature are not necessarily "good" (nature is amoral), therefore the assumption that a so-called "natural" wine is going to be better for your health, or the planet, than a less "natural" wine is probably erroneous. And that this kind of simplistic thinking is just another fad to stop people from thinking and that it is high time to use more complex thought processes about our relationship to nature. 

I am increasingly uneasy with regard to the "organic" or "bio" wave that is unfurling throughout developed countries. Of course one has to protect natural ressources and take care that dangerous substances (often hard to define by the way) are not put into food or drink. But what the French call "biological" (ie. organic) agriculture does not seem to me to be necessarily the best solution in every case. In the field of vineyard management, for exemple, most honest farmers involved in this approach freely admit that the carbon footprint left by their activities may well be more negative when going organic than under "conventional" agriculture, simply because they have to treat their vines more frequently (with products authorised under their various organic charters) and thus use much more diesel fuel for their tractors.

But this is just one aspect, as I noticed when reading a recent report published in the American journal called Environmental Health Perspectives, by researchrs from the NIH. This spoke about increased risks of Parkinson's Disease occurring among people who have been expose to two products used on all kinds of crops. One of these is paraquat, a synthetic herbicide; the other one is rotenone, a "natural" pesticide. Rotenone is an extract from various tropical plants and has been in use in organic farming for many years. In France, it was officially withdrawn from the market in 2008, but farmers, including vinegrowers, may continue to use it until April 2011. There seems to be no substitute for rotenone at the moment.

Now I lack the technical expertise to go into any more detail, but it seems to me that this proves my point that one should strongly resist making a necessary connection between organic farming and good health. And I have not yet mentioned the sometimes heavy use of copper sulfate on vines (authorised under organic farming rules) and its bad effects on soil life.

No, what is "natural" is NOT always "good". Step carefully through that jungle!


  1. David, Rousseau said (in French): "Tout est bien sortant des main de la Nature, tout dégénère dans les mains de l'homme." This is clearly a cultural problem. In France we like extremism and scientists never accept what is not demonstrable (we cut some heads for that !).
    So ! The main problem with rotenone is not its dangerousness but once again the fact that a organic product can be dangerous for human health. Let's remind one crucial point : pesticide and insecticide have both the same root : "cide" i.e. "to kill"… Yes, organic producers use that kind of products to kill insects, herbs, pests, etc. So yes, obviously that kind of products can be dangerous for us (like any other products whose name finish by "cide"). So what ? Is it just a question of fashion ? Not really : rotenone has the huge advantage of having a ridiculous persitence in soils. After 2 or 3 days the rotenone is almost disapeared and of course it will have killed all pests, insects, etc.
    All of that can be easily verified if necessary.

  2. Oh ! Nice picture ! Very good choice !

  3. Olivier, no need to quote your Jean-Jacques (an absolute nutter, if you ask me), but you have a point. Remanence is one of the key issues in ALL of our interventions, whatever the activity. I suppose Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan once were nice places to live! Still, let’s not OVERSIMPLIFY. The suffix “cide” or “cidal” means what you say, but not all living things function on the same biochemical mechanisms. A trivial example – I’ve got many vets in my family – is the paradoxical reaction of cats (and felines in general) to morphin derivatives – I know there have recently been some claims to the contrary - and their extreme susceptibility to the toxicity of phenols. They behave in a way totally different to dogs, for instance.

  4. Dear Luc, I totally agree. I am not simplifying that subject but try to generate thought around Mother Nature. Obviously it is very complex and the possible solutions for growing grapes are always evolving. Sexual confusion is an example. I think organic viticulture is not THE way of growing grapes in fine but it is more about a reflection of what should be done in the vineyards. The experiences made around GM rootstocks whatever the fundings or so (it is another subject) are NECESSARY AND NOT NECESSARILY THE SOLUTION. My next thought, if you agree, is the creation of the AB label : what is the message behind that ? The truth ? Seriously… Please no chapel but a place for reflection and progress.

  5. Oh and I guess JJ is nutter as well !

  6. It is given that JJ Rousseau was a crackpot.

    The issue with rotenone is that it has caused Parkinson's disease for people who apply the stuff to vines, trees and other crops. I suppose I should be saying "its use as a spray correlates with an above-average incidence of Parkinson's disease within the same population." I did not say that it presented dangers to wine-drinkers. Indeed, remanance, or the lack of it, is crucial here.

    But copper in soil has, I believe, considerable remanance, and that is used, sometimes in high quantities, by some organic farmers. And what do you say about the issue of carbon footprint and incresed use of fossile fuels in organic culture systems?

    I am getting quite fed up with this silly mantra, mindlessly repeated in most organico-natural litterature that goes: "we fully respect nature". What the hell do they mean? Eat a snake or two, Steiner!

  7. That's what I said David. Let's have a thought around that but don't impose these practices as the truth ! Some use to believe the earth was flat…

  8. Right, and, as far as WE are concerned : eat a steack or two, no tofú! This being said, PK disease in farmers has definitely a higher incidence than in the overall population. But this is also the case in professional boxers: the so-called “punch-drunk encephalopathy”. Didn’t know Daïkiri could so heavily damage your health!

  9. You are definitely the best Luc !